The Ugly Monster
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The Ugly Monster


Why Everyone’s Talking About tick, tick…Boom!

Watching Netflix’s biggest late sleeper hit of 2021 comes with some caveats: do you like musicals? Do you think Andrew Garfield’s indefatigable charisma carries everything he’s in? Do you like Rent and the history of its creation?

If all of these result in a resolute and affable “yes!” then you too would be talking about what makes tick, tick…Boom! feel so special. It has charm, is beautifully directed, and stands as an endearing testament to experiencing and advocating for the world around you.

tick, tick…Boom! is a wonderful homage to the late Jonathan Larson, a man who — up until watching this movie — I knew very little about.

Rent premiered in 1996, one day after Jonathan Larson’s sudden and tragic death. He wrote the musical throughout the early 90s, continuously streamlining and re-working whole sections. It premiered to critical acclaim and would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and quite a few Tonys.

The original Broadway cast of Rent from 1996 by JessnKat

I saw the movie version of Rent later in life and I honestly think that was to my own personal benefit. I was twenty and was seeing it way after it had been released and the hype for it was quieter, but I was transfixed immediately by the music, the performers, the entire spectacle of it. Living in an old, dreary, two story house in a city in New Jersey at the time, with four bedrooms split among seven girls, I felt their lives in a more acute way. Even now, nestled in a much more comfortable living situation with central (!!) air conditioning, I have ineffable feelings for my past and current city life that have only been rekindled in watching tick, tick…Boom!

The movie tick, tick…Boom! is based on the original play, which serves as an autobiographical reflection on Jonathan Larson’s life. It is a high-energy, raw depiction of the struggles that come with living in a sharp-edged city, cradling some gossamer hope of success, while balancing life, work, and relationships during one of the most tumultuous periods in modern American history. There are so many exceptionally stirring moments in the movie that detail these little snapshots of life flawlessly and with beautiful sincerity.

Andrew Garfield absolutely sells it as Jonathan Larson. He is so full of manic guilelessness that it’s hard not to love him. Everything he does in this movie he does with a passionate respect for the material, for the music, and for the sensitivity of the subject matter.

Which — let’s talk about that. Having just read and loved The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara and right now pouring through The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst; the affect the AIDs pandemic had on the LGBTQA+ community in the 1980s and 1990s, with ramifications that continue to linger, is something of a current focus. Jonathan Larson’s work is compellingly sympathetic and balances heartfelt empathy with personal anecdote. Out has a wonderful article that interviews the cast regarding Larson’s legacy and the pioneering representation of Rent.

Music has a way of communicating the often unsaid, it is a nesting of words and emotions released in a sudden torrent, a dam built in isolation and broken before spectators. In my recent watching of Mamoru Hosada’s Belle, which also highlights music as a means of change, I found that its staunch and emphatic defense of empathy and genuineness for musicality were the most beautiful things about it. tick, tick…Boom! functions on that same wavelength of wholehearted commitment to revelations of heart and soul — and I could not love that more.

tick, tick…Boom! is a messy testament to art. It moves with the fluidity of real life, in fury and in passion, sweeping the audience up in rapid-fire discussions of love and looming loss, of the march of time, and the feasibility of loving art and loving everything else. Larson’s powerful exploration of art is a call to action that, at the time, was unprecedented. Rent continues to stand as a testament to the pursuit of art as a revolutionary pastime.

Offering no easy answers, tick, tick…Boom! is content to idle in its uncertainty. That’s the charm of young adulthood. It posits, albeit unintentionally and with loving forthrightness, that there will always be questions we constantly seek answers to. There will often never be a single answer, never really be an answer at all. That mire of consistent inquiry is what it means to be human; we will always seek.

Larson’s struggle as an artist is so strikingly affecting because it shows the real uncertainty of what it means to make art, and why that compulsion can be so strong, so transcendentally divine that it feels like everything else is mere static. And then it all comes crashing back — friends, family, loves, life — when you set down the brush or pen or baton and you finally realize why you do what you do.




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